Climbing into Heaven - The Myth of "Jack and the Bean-Stalk" by Ernest Ingersoll 1899
For a list of all of my digital books and disks click here - Join my Facebook Group
Once upon a time a poor widow had one son named Jack. One sad day she sent him to sell the cow — her last resource; but when he saw some gaily-colored beans in the butcher's shop he was so delighted that he gave the cow for them, instead of demanding money, and took them home joyfully. But his mother, not recognizing the genius in her son (as often happens), scolded him as a foolish boy, and flung the beans away. They took root and sprouted so rapidly that by next morning a plant had grown right up into the sky. Then the lad vexed his poor worried mother still more by climbing up this bean-stalk; and he kept on climbing until she could no longer see him.
At the top Jack met The Fairy, and later, after tramping about awhile, went to the house of the one-eyed Giant,— the same one who had killed his father,— who gave him shelter for the night In the morning Jack rose early, and (out of revenge, I suppose) stole the three things the giant prized most — his red hen that everyday laid a golden egg; his harp, and his treasure-bags, or, as the oldest versions tell it, his bag of diamonds. When the giant awoke and discovered this theft, he ran after the rascal, who retreated down the bean-stalk. The giant followed, but Jack reached the bottom in time to cut the stalk and tumble the giant headfirst into a well where he was drowned.
Such is the modern tale of "Jack and the Bean-stalk," as told to English-speaking children everywhere. To most of those who hear it, the story is completed with the death of the wicked tyrant, and the audience is content. It is possible, however, by a little additional cracking, to get a great deal more meat out of this nut of fiction.
In the first place, it is interesting to note that this story, though familiar in England, is not among the fireside tales of Scotland — that is, of the Highlands, which is the true Scottish land. Tracing it back in literature, it appears to have been taught to Englishmen by the Welsh. They were not the inventors of it, however, nor did they get it from the near continent of Europe, for not only did the ancient Welsh see little of the French, Spanish or Germans, but the story is not known in the primitive folk-lore of those countries. Every probability, therefore, points to its derivation from the Danes and Norwegians, who invaded the north of England in the tenth century and held the mountains of Wales long after they had been driven out of the rest of the country by the Saxons. It is, in fact, an old Norse myth, retold first in Welsh shape and then in English. Let us reread the story in this new light.
In the first place: Who was Jack? Well, he was the typical "little Welshman," who would naturally become the hero of a Welsh story. He was that same Jack who before this had gone from Wales over into "Flintshire" and there had overcome giants and ogres,—among them that one who had a horrid way of singing "Fee, faw, fum!" But there are stories in all languages of how little fellows have overcome huge enemies by outwitting them, just as Jack did — the triumph of mind over matter; and some of these stories are Scandinavian.
In the present case, the giant is plainly Norse — the one-eyed Odin who lived in the skies and was supreme among the fierce gods of the Vikings. Remember that the people who inhabited northern England, twelve centuries ago, whose straightest descendants the Welsh of to-day now are, hated the pirates and oppressors from the North, who had come over the sea and conquered them. What more natural than that they should send their own valiant Jack (in stories) after the enemy's hero, as they conceived it, and express their contempt of the foe by accomplishing his ignominious downfall. The name of the hero-god was, perhaps, not known, or was forgotten by the grandmother who crooned the tale, and it certainly was unimportant to the child at her knee who listened to it; that it was a terrible giant was sufficient for both.
But Jack must get up into "heaven," where Odin lived. How was he do this, and keep the story straight. Climb, of course. Heaven — that is the land above the sky — did not seem so far away to those simple-minded people as it does to us who have measured the distance of the stars by millions of miles, and pushed back the celestial fields accordingly. Tom Hood understood this: —
"I remember, I remember,
The fir-trees dark and high;
I used to think their slender tops
Were close against the sky.
It was a childish ignorance,
But now't is little joy
To know I'm farther off from Heaven
Than when I was a boy."
The men of Babel honestly supposed they really could build a tower that would reach to the gates of God's city; and were punished for the presumption of seeking admission to the abode of the Lord,— not because they had attempted something impossible. At that time, and for hundreds of years afterward, the civilized world thought the sky a solid vault-roof, resting upon the Atlas and other distant mountains that seemed to lie along the edge of the world. A New Zealander expressed the fear that the sky would settle down and crush everything if the white men cut away his forests. In a certain sense his fear has been justified. The peasants of England a thousand years ago had much the same idea, so that it did not require extra-miraculous beans to put forth a stalk sufficiently tall to reach into heaven. The bean-plant grows astonishingly fast anyhow; and this growth was no more an exaggeration than that of Jonah's gourd in the Old Testament story. Here is suggested, however, another borrowed feature, for the Norsemen believed that their Tree of Life, Yggdrasil, supported the heavens upon its branches, holding up the earth by its roots; in fact, the very meaning of the word yggdrasil is said to be "Odin-sustaining," so that those who suppose that the Welsh turned the Norse tree of life into a bean-stalk, will think it perfectly natural that Jack should find a one-eyed giant at the top. A curious mediaeval church legend relates that the seeds of the tree from which the Holy Cross was made were got by Seth, in the Garden of Eden, from a tree whose roots were planted in hell and whose crown reached into heaven. This looks as if the ancient faith in Yggdrasil, twisted into a Christian legend, had lived on long after all the real Odin worshippers were dead. Perhaps Jack's beans were the fruit of that very tree!
It is little wonder, then, that the superstitious people of a few centuries ago imagined that when their forefathers, the all-powerful heroes, lived, a land above the sky could be reached, and had occasionally been gained by climbing. The ancient Israelites thought so, after their own fashion, or we never should have heard of Jacob's ladder; and similar stories are yet current among savage races. In Callaway's book of Zulu tales and traditions, for example, there is an account of a boy and girl who fled from a cannibal, and finding a tall tree, ascended by it to a beautiful country where they were safe. It had houses with burnished floors, instead of the hard mud of the earthly huts they had come from, and was altogether enjoyable. They stayed there a long time, killing huge bullocks for food, and doing various remarkable things. Finally, they resolved to descend to the earth and look for their sister, thinking that after this long time the cannibals must be dead. So they took a rope of ox-hide, fastened it to a log, and let it down through a hole to the earth. By this, they descended, and then, leaving the rope hanging, went in search of their sister. They travelled until that moon died without finding her, but when a new moon came they learned where she was, and the three lived together ever afterward.
This reminds one of the yarn the Wyandot Indians spin on winter nights of a boy that wanted to get into heaven. So he climbed to the top of a certain tree and began to blow upon it, whereupon the tree lengthened out and continued to stretch up, under his breath, until finally it reached to his goal. Discovering there fine prairies and good things generally, the boy thoughtfully went back to his tribe and took his sister up to share them with him ever afterward. Very similar is the story once current among the Indians of northern Canada, of a man who chased a magic squirrel up a tree, and kept up the pursuit until he found himself in heaven. These are examples of many native American traditions of celestial explorations. On the other side of the world, however, the mythical tree grows down instead of up. In St. John's large work on Borneo is given the Dyak's explanation of how they first received the rice which is now their staple food.
A long time ago, they say, when men had nothing to eat but a kind of toadstool, a party of Dyaks, one of whom was named Si Jura, went out to sea. They sailed on for some time until they came to a great whirlpool, and there, to their amazement, saw a huge fruit tree rooted in the sky and hanging down until its branches touched the waves. (Is this a picture of the water-spout?) His companions asked Si Jura to get into the tree, and pick some of the fruit for them, which he willingly did; and then he found himself tempted to ascend the trunk and find out how the tree came to grow in that extraordinary position. He did so, and before long his companions lost sight of him, and after waiting awhile sailed away with their load of fruit.
"Si Jura looking down, saw this cool proceeding, and finding himself abandoned concluded there was nothing for him to do but climb still higher, in hope of reaching some resting-place. So at last he came to the roots of the tree, and there he found himself in a new country — that of the Pleiades, or 'little dipper' group of stars, which in that latitude stands nearly overhead. There he met a man who introduced himself as Si Kira, and who took Si Jura to his home, where he offered him something to eat. But it was a mess of little white sticky objects which Si Jura took to be maggots, and he refused in disgust.
"'They are not maggots,' said his host, 'but boiled rice-grains.'
"Then Si Kura explained to his visitor what rice was, and the whole process of planting and cultivating it, and of preparing the grains for food, after which Si Jura ate it, and thought it excellent.
"When he had finished his dinner Si Kura gave his visitor seeds of three kinds of rice, renewed his instructions in regard to planting it, and then let him down from heaven to earth by a long rope, where he landed in his own village of Sam pole."
In the Celebes Islands, again, the old aunties tell children the story of a woman named Utahagi, who had a magic hair in her head which her husband incautiously pulled out. The result of this meddling act was that Utahagi was wafted up to heaven. Then their little baby boy began to cry, and the father, Kasimbaha, was in great distress. Hearing the baby's wailing, and knowing that Kasimbaha was anxious to take it to its mother, a kindhearted rat gnawed the thorns off some rattans, enabling the man to climb up into the sky with the lonely baby on his back. There a little bird showed them the home of Utahagi, and the child grew up to take his place among the celestials.
Now it is a curious coincidence that down in New Zealand, thousands of miles across the Pacific, the Maoris used to tell nearly the same thing of Tawhaki, who believed that his wife, Tango-tango, had been sent to him from heaven,—a common error with young husbands. Well, when their first baby was born Tawhaki was disappointed because of its small and feeble appearance, and had the bad taste to say so.
Tango-tango was so hurt, that after a long crying spell she resolved to leave this unappreciative earth and return to her father's house in the skies. So she took her abused darling and flew away. But Tawhaki caught sight of her just as she was disappearing above the houseroof, and begged her at least to leave him some token, whereupon Tango-tango naively warned him not, at any rate, to lay hold of a swinging creeper, if he wished to follow her, but to find one whose dangling end had rooted itself firmly in the ground, and then to hold on to it as fast as possible.
When she had vanished the young chief mourned her so intensely that at the end of a month he could bear the pain no longer, but took his younger brother, Karihi, and two slaves, and started to look for some means of joining his wife. After a while he came to where creepers hung down — apparently from heaven — some loose and others rooted in the ground. The younger brother seized one of these, but it was a loose tendril, and at once swung him far away to the horizon, then swept him back again with a rush to the other, and so, perhaps, he might have been kept swinging like a pendulum till now had not his brother called to him to let go as he came near the ground, and he dropped off unhurt. Warned by this, Tawhaki began to climb a creeper which was well rooted, and never ceased repeating a powerful incantation — just as the Wyandot boy blew, and blew — nor once looked back, until he had reached heaven, where he soon found his wife and child. Now, when it thunders, the Maoris say, "That is Tawhaki walking about"; and when they see the lightning they know it flashes from his body.
It is noticeable that men — substantially all mankind — have always believed in a land above the sky, among or beyond the stars; and they have agreed that upon the whole, it is a commendable region. But this does not mean that they have thought of it as "heaven" in our present Biblical sense of the word; rather, merely, as an undiscovered country. There was no urgent reason why anyone should go thither, and, as a matter of fact, none of the adventurers in our stories seem to have made any particular effort to do so, except the Maori, and he went only as Orpheus descended into the under world, to get his wife. The excursions were accidental to a great extent. There is no evidence that even Jack intended a celestial journey until his bean-stalk stood tall and fair before him, suggesting a means of temporarily escaping from a scolding mother.
A country without inhabitants seems unnatural, and therefore the primitive imagination peopled the land above the sky with beings which they knew no better than to make like themselves. It is only the somewhat advanced, and always grim, northern imagination that turned these into hostile and formidable persons— giants and ogres. That these beings should occasionally come down to earth is a natural sequence of thought; and that by some magical means natives of the earth might now and then return these visits logically followed.
It is interesting to observe, further, how the unsophisticated mind of the savage simply enlarged the means of climbing that he knew. A tree lifts its head above the clouds; a vine hangs from an unseen height; but these are still natural trees, only of exaggerated size. That such things might be did not seem to him. So much in nature was beyond his comprehension, there were so many surprises, that he was ready to admit the report of any development beyond his experience, so long as it kept to lines he knew. The savage is a true agnostic. It is only after mankind, on its way to the higher knowledge, has reached a stage of doubt, uncontrolled by scientific reasoning, that the tall tree is rejected, and a wholly supernatural chariot of fire, or something of the kind, is required for the credibility of a narrative of translation to the upper world.
A great number of stories similar to those above given might be quoted, passing gradually into another list of those detailing how the spirits of the dead are carried to the skies. The Mbocobis of Paraguay, for example, think that at death their souls go up to heaven by a tree which joins earth and sky; and among other peoples a gossamer web, a dangling rope, smoke, a ladder of iron or gold, or the rainbow answers the same purpose; while some savages reverse the idea, and say that their ancestors reached this earth by climbing up a tree or grape-vine from some former habitation under the world, to which the souls of the dead return.
But other details of the history of Jack and his Bean-stalk are worth attention.
The giant is a familiar personage in European myths, and almost invariably has great treasures to guard,— a very natural consequence of size and strength. As to the red hen that laid golden eggs, that is one of a large number of creatures of various kinds in various stories which produce gold. Often in Eastern tales it is a snake that spits it out, or some four-footed beast held in captivity.
The harp is another bit of furniture that belongs in the houses of giants and demi-gods the world over, according to the old story-tellers; and it is very properly mentioned here, because the Norsemen believed that when they heard the droning sound of the wind, rising and falling in melody as it swept through the tree-tops, it was old Odin playing upon his harp; and in some of the Northern stories a magic harp is played so persuasively by the hero that the trees crowd about and follow the divine harper and all the animals are spell-bound, as happened to Orpheus. It is not surprising, therefore, to learn that Jack found a harp among the possessions of the one-eyed giant.
Lastly — the bags of treasure. These were of gold or diamonds, and coin and gems are as good on earth as in skyland. Jack looted all he could carry away, thinking, no doubt, of his poverty-stricken anxious mother to whom he would thus make a magnificent atonement for his apparent folly, and for the cow that he would now redeem.
But some students of mythology say that all this plunder is only symbolic,—that the golden egg is the sun, which seems to be laid every morning by the "red dawn"; that the "harp" is the wailing north wind; and that the treasure bags are the rain clouds, which seem to be filled with coin when they are gilded by the sun's rays, and to overflow with diamonds when the summer showers fall glittering from their sack-like folds. Certainly in many myths the sun and the clouds are plainly spoken of as an egg and as bags, and the rains as the "treasures of the gods." It may be that a plausible explanation of this familiar old tale might be made along those lines, yet I cannot but think it as unnecessary as it would be farfetched to interpret Jack and the Bean-stalk as a solar myth. I believe it is just the kindly invention of some good old grandmother to please a little boy at her knee who had begged for a story before he went to bed; and that the interesting parallelisms I have noted have no more mysterious origin.